Xbox 360 Live Arcade Roundup

Jerry Whorebach 4/15/2007 

Xbox 360 Live Arcade Roundup

There are presently 40 games on XBox 360 Live Arcade, all are under 50MB and all offer a (usually very) limited trial version. I have evaluated all of them and ordered none of them, yet. These are my impressions.

I bet the biz guy who did the Tetris deal for Spectrum Holobyte is still a little bitter about how this man FUCKED HIM.
Alexey Pajitnov's Hexic HD
You get a whole grid of multicolored hexes to fuck around with, spin them, combine them, don't worry if they start disappearing, you get free refills of hexes for the life of this product. Anyway, it's basically Who Wants to be a Millionaire to Tetris' Jeopardy. There are no time limits, usually the right moves are immediately obvious, and sometimes you get such a ridiculously obscure combination of hexes that no amount of knowledge or skill can help you. The full version comes pre-installed on your hard drive, I've probably spent twelve hours with this one already.

Assault Heroes; Novadrome; Small Arms
These "action" games are all utter shit. Assault Heroes is probably the worst, it's Ikari Warriors for people on medication. Small Arms is like Smash Brothers with a cast of ridiculously unlikeable anthropomorphic animals instead of beloved mascots and machine guns instead of anything even remotely fun. Novadrome was just released this evening but plays like terrible 3D shareware from 1996, it reminded me of Necrodome even though the only things they have in common are futuristic dune buggies in gladiatorial arenas and a strong assy smell.

Physics-based 3D puzzle game. I fired it up and my commanding robofficer instructed me to pick up the barrel to begin the tutorial or pick up the crate to jump right into the adventure. I have no idea what would have happened after that, maybe in the next room the designers said they were just kidding and I should pick up the big-titted roborgasm device to begin the real game, who knows.

Marble Blast Ultra
More Marble Madness. Super Monkey Ball proved that this formula has room for innovation, there's no excuse for skirting copyright infringement this closely. Still fun for those who enjoy tedious rolling around bottomless drops, but the levels are tiny and the full version only comes with sixty of them, compare that to the three hundred or so banana-filled boards in SMB Deluxe for the original XBox (which you can probably find for about the same price now). Don't misinterpret that last sentence as an indication that SMB Deluxe is compatible with the 360 because, although I haven't actually bothered to check, it's not.

Lumines Live!
I had never played Lumines before, now I know what all the hype was about. Another meaty trial version, I made it to the third "skin" (sort of a combined tile/rule/sound-set) yesterday without hitting any sort of limitation. Good thing too, because it'll probably take a lot of convincing before anyone shells out $15 for the "base" game and $5 for the "advanced" game and whatever they decide to charge in future for the remaining locked content. Get what's available now like an idiot me or wait for the inevitable bargain-priced special-edition bundle, the choice is yours.

Cloning Clyde
Side-scrolling puzzler. I haven't played one like this since The Lost Vikings Vike Back or whateverthefuck. Full of that embarassing programmer humour involving sheep and exploding barrels and cute little playtips that no one used to stop nerds from putting in games. Hopefully the full version is a lot more challenging than the trial, because I'll probably order it just for nostalgic purposes.

Crystal Quest; DOOM
Two old computer games, one that everyone played to death and one that no one played at all. Who exactly is the market for these? Wouldn't it make more sense to release a popular game that, due to appearing on only one format or something, lots of people never got the chance to enjoy? For fuck's sake Microsoft, you own the developers of MARATHON! And how hard could it be to secure the rights to the much-talked about Atari Jaguar version of Alien vs. Predator?

Texas Hold 'em
I didn't care to learn the nuances of this game when it was called "Poker," a stupider name isn't going to change that.

Hardwood Backgammon
Finally, something I can do with checkers that's more boring than just playing checkers.

Hardwood Hearts; Hardwood Spades
Hearts and Spades are the same game, and it isn't even a good game. A real deck of cards comes with both of these and Microsoft Solitaire, making it clearly the better deal.

Tom Chick fucking loves this shit, maybe you can join his buddy list?

Geometry Wars 2, we swear
Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved
Almost exactly Grid Wars 2, which makes it I guess the best arcade game to never see the inside of an arcade since Tempest 2000. The trial version gives you a meaty four minutes of play and the full version costs only $5. Everyone says it's the best value on Live Arcade and who am I to argue? This will be my first purchase once I figure out how to convert all of my useless cash money into Microsoft Fun Bucks.

Outpost Kaloki X
Fun little Theme Hospital-type simulation with plenty of character that plays well on a gamepad. What more can you ask for? Well, all the missions in the trial seemed to lead you around by the narrative as a substitute for meaningful choice in developing your space station, hopefully the full version opens up a bit. The typical nerd will buy this because it reminds her (haha, him) of Futurama, I'll buy it because it reminds me of the far more obscure and unfunny Captain Star.

Mutant Storm Reloaded
A Robotron clone with beautiful graphics, inventive gunplay, and at least one too many unnecessary words in the title. Now I'll own two!

Various emulated classics
Buy Pac-Man and Street Fighter II Turbo for $5 and $10 respectively, then feel like an asshole when Ms. Pac-Man and Super Street Fighter II Turbo finally trickle out of Microsoft's painfully narrow gamehole. You can replace those examples with Contra and Contra III, Scramble and Gradius, or virtually any other combination of available game and vastly superior sequel.

Bankshot Billiards 2
I might have warmed to this one if the trial hadn't cut short my game of eightball after only three shots. Now I have an appetite for virtual pool, but I haven't bonded with this particular simulation either, so someone's getting my money but it probably won't be these guys.

Feeding Frenzy
Vaguely original premise. You're a fish who grows bigger by eating smaller fish. Predators at one stage of growth become prey at the next. Unfortunately the whole game takes place on a single screen, making everything feel cramped and unimpressive, and you never do end up eating whales or giant squid or pleasurecraft. Blame Katamari for raising the bar.

Various PopCap puzzlers
Bejeweled, Zuma and their ilk have been around for a long time and I still haven't given them a chance, maybe I will some night when I have nothing better to do. I assume these all must be pretty good games with typically crippled trials, so when the time comes I'll just pick one and order it, no questions asked.

Wik: Fable of Souls
The grubby-yet-whimsical art design is reminiscent of Oddworld, but the controls are vastly more fiddly. You aim your little goblin's jumps much the same way you aim a bazooka in Worms, and slap the button at the right time to latch onto grapple points with his tongue. Another game stuck in the age before Super Mario Bros when all levels had to fit on a single screen. Not bad, but not a traditional platformer, which is what I wanted at least one of in this whole batch of titles. Maybe the sales numbers from Nintendo's Virtual Console will inspire some?

Hard to believe that's all MS has managed to turn out over the past year. I can appreciate not wanting to deluge the casual gamer with low-quality titles, but frankly I think they've managed to cross that bridge anyway. I think the first two Playstations proved that success requires the broadest possible selection at the lowest possible price point, and the consumer is generally capable of sorting the wheat from the chaff all by herself (haha, himself).

UPDATE 4/15/2007

JetPac Refueled

A highly-playable emulation of the original 16-level Jetpac is available from the main menu. More than the dated graphics, it's actually the lack of Refuelled's most excellent jump-jet physics that's kept me from spending much time with it.
I never owned a Spectrum. This could be because I'm not old enough, nerdy enough, European enough or all of the above. So if you can remember enjoying the much-lauded original release of Jetpac on "Uncle Clive's sleek black box" (gay :/), you are in some way worse than I am. Fortunately though, Rare included an emulation of their 1983 first attempt along with this new re-imagining, so I can rest easy knowing that I didn't miss much.

But from tiny acorns spring mighty cocks. After twenty-odd years, plenty of sunlight and countless particle showers, Jetpac has matured into one of the five finest games on Live Arcade. Which, given its 400 point pricetag, makes it easily the third best value on the service (after the similarly-priced Geometry Wars and the free hard drive pack-in Hexic). I suppose I should tell you about the gameplay, though, so read on if you're still not sold.

The player controls, from a traditional side-view, a little man in a spacesuit. He can be commanded to walk slowly left or right by pressing the corresponding direction on the joypad (or analog stick if you hate precision). Pulling the right trigger activates his rocket boosters for as long as the trigger's depressed, allowing him to jump great distances in any direction and even change direction in mid-air. Since this is a video game, a laser is available on the A button and a limited supply of screen-clearing bombs are assigned to the X button.

Each level is a different planet, represented by a single screen with a variable assortment of floating platforms. Fuel modules - which the spaceman must pick up and deliver to his parked rocket ship - fall from the sky, as do four kinds of power-up: laser upgrade modules, extra bombs, and a couple different shapes of bonus points. Hostile aliens float back and forth across the playfield in specific patterns, waiting to kill the spaceman if he so much as touches them, with later levels featuring aliens capable of actively persuing the protagonist.

And that's about it, or as much as I've come across so far. You get 128 levels for your five dollars and - thanks to most of the achievements being focused on the first 10 - I've seen only a fraction of those. It's great fun, the few minutes of music are catchy enough that I usually forget to mute my TV, and the graphics rival anything I've seen on Adult Swim (and I mean that in the nicest possible way).

The game does have its problems. Collecting one laser upgrade gives you a double-shot, two a triple-shot that can also be aimed up or down, and three a slightly more powerful version of your useless original single-shot, with subsequent capsules producing predictable results. This means that on your second upgrade and every three upgrades thereafter you're an unstoppable killing machine, and the rest of the time you're cursing yourself for accidentally grabbing one too many power-ups.

And the ultra-detailed 2D (or perfectly cel-shaded, I can't even tell) graphics you heard me praise two paragraphs back sometimes make it hard to distinguish your enemies from the backgrounds, especially when they're both moving and roughly the same colour. Oh, and the view pointlessly zooms out slightly when you engage your jets, meaning you can't see the very edges of the screen while standing still. Perhaps this was done to encourage players to stay on their jets, which is usually not a bad idea (except when you're trying to still the screen enough that you can pick out enemies from all the clutter). These might not even be issues for you if you're not playing on a 20" SDTV like I am.

But not even Joust was perfect. And, unlike Joust, you've possibly never played this one before. Buy Jetpac Refuelled if you want to see more obscure remakes done right and sold cheap.

Jerry Whorebach